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PRIMARY RACE FOR PRESIDENT OF COUNCIL IS DO OR DIE

They're viewed as City Hall's intellectuals: two bright, ambitious lawmakers -- one of them a leader, the other eager to topple him from power.

Come Jan. 1, only one will remain.

For James W. Pitts and David A. Franczyk, it's a do-or-die effort at winning the premier leadership post on the Common Council, a job second only to the mayor in power and prestige.

It's a contest that centers on what many see as a lack of leadership and vision at City Hall.

It's also a contest that focuses on race. An African-American has served as Council president for 25 years.

The primary is Sept. 14, and in predominantly Democratic Buffalo this is the big citywide campaign.

For Pitts and Franczyk, who together have 36 years of service on the Council, it's a campaign that puts their political careers at risk. Franczyk is giving up his Fillmore District Council seat, and Pitts is seeking a second four-year term as president.

From the day Franczyk announced his plans to challenge Pitts, his message has been one of change and reform. He's quick to portray his opponent as the status quo, blaming him for the petty politics and lack of action that sometimes keep the city from moving forward.

"This is our last, best hope to save Buffalo," Franczyk says. "The status quo is a recipe for disaster and Pitts is the apostle for the status quo."

Pitts, the city's highest-ranking black official, says that the issue isn't style but rather performance and that, unlike his challenger, he gets things
done.

"David Franczyk isn't running for Council president, he's running away from Fillmore," Pitts says.

Pitts goes out of his way to focus attention on Franczyk's home district, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, an area devastated by crime, drugs, slumlords and disinvestment.

He often compares Fillmore with Ellicott, the East Side district he represented before becoming president. His former neighborhood prospered in his 18 years as its representative, he claims.

With nearly 40 years of legislative service between them, both men have a long record to run on. For that reason alone, this race is a referendum of sorts, a gauge of how voters perceived each of them.

Are they part of the problem or part of the solution?

A recent Buffalo News survey of community leaders painted a portrait of a Council mired in politics and self-interest, a rudderless group lacking vision, leadership and initiative. Of those surveyed, two-thirds said the city was headed in the wrong direction, and many of them pinned the blame on the Council.

"The Council needs change, and Dave Franczyk represents the change the Council needs," said Assemblyman Brian Higgins, who served on the Council with Franczyk and Pitts. "I've developed a healthy respect for David's intellect, his temperament and his vision for the city."

On an individual basis, both Franczyk and Pitts finished among the top six Council members, with Franczyk finishing slightly higher than Pitts. Community leaders gave both men high marks for intelligence, independence and speaking ability.

The survey also revealed their warts.

While Pitts is viewed as bright and creative, he also is seen as arrogant, uncompromising and divisive. Critics call him an obstructionist, a lawmaker opposed to reforms in how City Hall does business.

"Some people don't like his style, but the bottom line is he gets things done," said former Council President George K. Arthur, a longtime Pitts ally. "He also has that vision to look down the line and see what will happen five or ten years from now. That's a gift."

Like Pitts, Franczyk is viewed as energetic and smart. He also is perceived as a legislator who fails to use his power and intelligence to its fullest, a lawmaker who frequently is ineffective.

One thing is certain -- voters will have a choice of two lawmakers with a long and somewhat mixed record at City Hall.

Pitts' achievement record

After 22 years at City Hall, no Council member is more recognizable than Jim Pitts. The trademark bow tie, the impassioned speeches and a demeanor that can be both charming and intimidating. He also has a record of achievement that most Council members can't come close to matching.

Ask him about his proudest accomplishments, and he'll tell you of his role in revitalizing the near East Side. The area bordering downtown now has hundreds of new homes and the Ellicott Mall, a vacant public housing complex renovated and converted to private housing.

Pitts, at a recent candidates' forum in the Kensington-Bailey area, read from a list of accomplishments.

"Jim Pitts is the only choice you have for Council president," he told block club leaders.

Pitts talked of his fight to save St. Mary of Sorrows Church and how the city converted the East Side landmark into the King Urban Life Center, home to a new elementary school.

A self-described watchdog on consumer issues, he spoke of his role in creating a telecommunications office at City Hall. He also served as the Council's point man in the construction of Marine Midland Arena.

That's just the beginning, he says. If re-elected, he plans to make job creation his big priority. His focus is on the "green-gold" strategy of attracting businesses involved in solving environmental problems. He wants to build a "green-gold" industrial park with the goal of creating 500 new jobs for Buffalo.

"It will give us a new economic niche and a powerful development strategy," he said.

Pitts also wants to improve neighborhood planning by expanding the Buffalo Neighborhood Planning Corp., a not-for-profit group formed last year. The group would rely on urban planners and architects from the region to provide guidance to neighborhood groups on everything from development issues to staff training.

He also wants to concentrate more of the city's energy and money on bringing new housing and retail to downtown. He also thinks downtown, because of its low real estate costs, is an ideal location for growing Internet companies eager to expand.

"From my point of view," said Pitts, "that's where our future is."

Franczyk's theme of change

Despite his 14 years in office, Dave Franczyk is running on a theme of change.

Everywhere he goes, it's the same message: If you want the status quo, vote for Jim Pitts; if you want progress and growth, Franczyk's your man.

"We have so much to offer," he told a homeowner while going door-to-door in North Buffalo recently. "The last four years have been disastrous."

Ask him about his priorities if he's elected, and the big three roll off his lips -- jobs, schools and neighborhoods.

He also points with pride to a legislative record that stresses quality-of-life concerns, whether it's the slumlord next door or the drug dealer at the corner.

Mention an inner-city problem, and chances are good Franczyk has proposed legislation to try to deal with it.

He is the author of Buffalo's landlord licensing law and was instrumental in drafting legislation to handle gatehouses, illegal gun sales and improper deli operations.

He bristles at Pitts' suggestion that he stood by and watched the Fillmore District deteriorate.

"That poor district has been hit with the four horsemen of the apocalypse: drugs, crime, poverty and slumlords," Franczyk said. "To think it's going to magically disappear is an illusion."

Like Pitts, Franczyk is promising a greater emphasis on jobs if elected. He wants to exploit the city's current strengths: health care, education and cross-border trade with Canada.

He also wants to improve Buffalo's neighborhoods through stronger enforcement of quality-of-life laws. And he recently proposed the creation of strike-force teams -- a city housing inspector and police officer -- who would visit each building in the city at least once a year.

He makes these proposals while noting that Pitts moved from his inner-city home to North Buffalo when he was elected to citywide office.

"I was jumped and mugged, I was broken into, but I never ran away," Franczyk said. "That's what Pitts did. He abandoned ship."

About race, neighborhoods

The Franczyk-Pitts campaign is more than just nuts-and-bolts issues. It's also about race, ethnicity and neighborhoods.

Politically, it's an election that may turn on how many blacks and whites vote. And if Franczyk wins, he will be the first white politician to serve as Council president in 25 years.

Given the city's large African-American population, many view the Council presidency as an essential part of the minority representation at City Hall.

"It's more than symbolism," said Arthur, who served in the post for 12 years. "It's part of what government does to provide checks and balances for the minority community."

For some people, black and white, Franczyk's election would be particularly galling because of his central role in Buffalo's eight-year-old reapportionment case. The lawsuit, brought by the NAACP, charges the city with discriminating against black voters in Fillmore because of the way it drew district boundaries.

Franczyk has repeatedly denied the claims of discrimination and, during the campaign, has pointed with pride to his support among minority groups. He was recently endorsed by the Erie County Latino Voters Association.

But race is just one part of the equation on who wins and loses on Primary Day. It also hinges on who gets out the vote.

Pitts, endorsed by the Erie County Democratic Committee, will count on the party machinery, several unions and his own organization.

In contrast, Franczyk is supported by the AFL-CIO and most of the city's political clubs, from the Southside Democratic Club in South Buffalo to the Delaware Club in North Buffalo to the East Side Democratic Club.

Noticeably absent from the mix is Mayor Masiello, who has stayed neutral despite ordering his troops to abstain during Pitts' endorsement by the party.

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